Against Skepticism

Against Skepticism

References from Lucretius

On The Nature of Things, Book 1:

[Bailey] “But now, to weave again at the web, which is the task of my discourse, all nature then, as it is of itself, is built of these two things: for there are bodies and the void, in which they are placed and where they move hither and thither. For that body exists is declared by the feeling which all share alike; and unless faith in this feeling be firmly grounded at once and prevail, there will be naught to which we can make appeal about things hidden, so as to prove aught by the reasoning of the mind. “

“On The Nature of Things’ Book IV

[Humphries] Oh, there are
Many examples of illusion’s craft
Whereby we are beguiled to doubt our senses.
A vain endeavor, really; on the whole,
We are fooled, or fool ourselves, because we bring
Such predilections with us that we see
Imagined things, not real ones. Humankind
Finds nothing harder than to separate
The patent facts from those dubieties
Mind loves to introduce.

But if a man
Argues that, therefore, nothing can be known,
He does not really even know that much
Since he’s confessing total ignorance.
I’d best not argue with this kind of man
Who sticks his head in the ground, his feet in the air.
Still, let me grant he knows this much, I’ll ask
How, since he’s never caught one glimpse of truth
In anything whatever, how does he know
What knowing and non-knowing are, what fact
Gave him the notion of the true and false,
Assured him of a difference between
The doubtful and the certain? You will find
All knowledge of the truth originates
Out of the senses, and the senses are
Quite irrefutable. Find, if you can,
A standard more acceptable than sense
To sort out truth from falsehood. What can be
More credible than sense? Shall reasoning,
Born of some error, some delusionment,
Argue the senses down? Ridiculous!
If sense is false, reason will have to be.
Can ears refute the eyes, the sense of touch
Negate the sense of hearing? Do our noses
Appeal against our eyes, our sense of taste
File counterclaim against our ears’ report?
I’d hardly think so. To each sense belongs
Its jurisdiction, so that soft, hot, cold,
Color, sound, shape, and odor are assigned
To different areas. Therefore, no sense
Can contradict another or itself,
Since their report must be dependable
The same way always. If at any time
A thing seems true to them, it must be so.

And if your reasoning faculties can find
No explanation why a thing looks square
When seen close up, and round when farther off,
Even so, it might be better for a man
Who lacks the power of reason, to give out
Some idiotic theory, than to drop
All hold of basic principles, break down
Every foundation, tear apart the frame
That holds our lives, our welfare. All is lost,
Not only reason, but our very life,
Unless we have the courage and the nerve
To trust the senses, to avoid those sheer
Downfalls into the pits and tarns of nonsense.
All that verbose harangue against the senses
Is utter absolute nothing.

If a building
Were planned by someone with a crooked ruler
Or an inaccurate square, or spirit-level
A little out of true, the edifice,
In consequence, would be a frightful mess,
Warped, wobbly, wish-wash, weak and wavering,
Waiting a welter of complete collapse –
So let your rule of reason never be
Distorted by the fallacies of sense
Lest all your logic prove a road to ruin.


Wondrously many other things of this sort we see, all of which would fain spoil our trust in the senses; all in vain, since the greatest part of these things deceives us on account of the opinions of the mind, which we add ourselves, so that things not seen by the senses are counted as seen. For nothing is harder than to distinguish things manifest from things uncertain, which the mind straightway adds of itself.

Again, if any one thinks that nothing is known, he knows not whether that can be known either, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against him then I will refrain from joining issue, who plants himself with his head in the place of his feet. And yet were I to grant that he knows this too, yet I would ask this one question; since he has never before seen any truth in things, whence does he know what is knowing, and not knowing each in turn, what thing has begotten the concept of the true and the false, what thing has proved that the doubtful differs from the certain? You will find that the concept of the true is begotten first from the senses, and that the senses cannot be gainsaid. For something must be found with a greater surety, which can of its own authority refute the false by the true. Next then, what must be held to be of greater surety than sense? Will reason, sprung from false sensation, avail to speak against the senses, when it is wholly sprung from the senses? For unless they are true, all reason too becomes false. Or will the ears be able to pass judgement on the eyes, or touch on the ears? or again will the taste in the mouth refute this touch; will the nostrils disprove it, or the eyes show it false? It is not so, I trow. For each sense has its faculty set apart, each its own power, and so it must needs be that we perceive in one way what is soft or cold or hot, and in another the diverse colours of things, and see all that goes along with colour. Likewise, the taste of the mouth has its power apart; in one way smells arise, in another sounds. And so it must needs be that one sense cannot prove another false. Nor again will they be able to pass judgement on themselves, since equal trust must at all times be placed in them.

Therefore, whatever they have perceived on each occasion, is true. And if reason is unable to unravel the cause, why those things which close at hand were square, are seen round from a distance, still it is better through lack of reasoning to be at fault in accounting for the causes of either shape, rather than to let things clear seen slip abroad from your grasp, and to assail the grounds of belief, and to pluck up the whole foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reasoning fall away; life itself too would collapse straightway, unless you chose to trust the senses, and avoid headlong spots and all other things of this kind which must be shunned, and to make for what is opposite to these. Know, then, that all this is but an empty store of words, which has been drawn up and arrayed against the senses. Again, just as in a building, if the first ruler is awry, and if the square is wrong and out of the straight lines, if the level sags a whit in any place, it must needs be that the whole structure will be made faulty and crooked, all awry, bulging, leaning forwards or backwards, and out of harmony, so that some parts seem already to long to fall, or do fall, all betrayed by the first wrong measurements; even so then your reasoning of things must be awry and false, which all springs from false senses.


Many are the other marvels of this sort we see, which all seek to shake as it were the credit of the senses: quite in vain, since the greatest part of these cases cheats us on account of the mental suppositions which we add of ourselves, taking those things as seen which have not been seen by the senses.

For nothing is harder than to separate manifest facts from doubtful which straightway the mind adds on of itself.

Again if a man believe that nothing is known, he knows not whether this even can be known, since he admits he knows nothing.

I will therefore decline to argue the case against him who places himself with head where his feet should be.

And yet granting that he knows this, I would still put this question, since he has never yet seen any truth in things, whence he knows what knowing and not knowing severally are, and what it is that has produced the knowledge of the true and the false and what has proved the doubtful to differ from the certain.

You will find that from the senses first has proceeded the knowledge of the true and the false and that the senses cannot be refuted.

For that which is of itself to be able to refute things false by true things must from the nature of the case be proved to have the higher certainty.

Well then, what must fairly be accounted of higher certainty than sense?

Shall reason founded on false sense be able to contradict them, wholly founded as it is on the senses?

And if they are not true, then all reason as well is rendered false.

Or shall the ears be able to take the eyes to task, or the touch the ears? Again shall the taste call in question this touch, or the nostrils refute or the eyes controvert it? Not so, I guess; for each apart has its own distinct office, each its own power; and therefore we must perceive what is soft and cold or hot by one distinct faculty, by another perceive the different colors of things and thus see all objects which are conjoined with color.

Taste too has its faculty apart; smells spring from one source, sounds from another.

It must follow therefore that any one sense cannot confute any other.

No nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to it at all times.

What therefore has at any time appeared true to each sense, is true.

And if reason shall be unable to explain away the cause why things which close at hand were square, at a distance looked round, it yet is better, if you are at a loss for the reason, to state erroneously the causes of each shape than to let slip from your grasp on any side things manifest and ruin the groundwork of belief and wrench up all the foundations on which rest life and existence.

For not only would all reason give way, life itself would at once fall to the ground, unless you choose to trust the senses and shun precipices and all things else of this sort that are to be avoided, and to pursue the opposite things.

All that host of words then be sure is quite unmeaning which has been drawn out in array against the senses.

Once more, as in a building, if the rule first applied is wry, and the square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, and if there is the slightest hitch in any part of the level, all the construction must be faulty, all must be wry, crooked, sloping, leaning forwards, leaning backwards, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, others do fall, ruined all by the first erroneous measurements; so too all reason of things must needs prove to you distorted and false, which is founded on false senses.

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